In 1971 a young Clint Eastwood and veteran director Don Siegel collaborated on three occasions, including Play Misty for Me – Eastwood’s directorial debut (featuring a brief and rare acting cameo by Siegel) – The Beguiled – a Southern gothic thriller set in the American Civil War – and Dirty Harry – the story of detective Harry Callahan and his quest to stop the notorious serial killer Scorpio. All three titles are worth mentioning in their own right. Play Misty for Me launched the directing career of Eastwood, who would go on to direct forty more projects, including Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River and Gran Torino. The Beguiled, on the other hand, helped the young star in adding a new element to his on-screen persona – a sense of imminent threat and perversion. Finally, and most importantly, Dirty Harry was Eastwood’s first encounter with fame, after years and years of odd jobs on American TV (most notably, Rawhide) and Italian Spaghetti Westerns (the Dollars trilogy), and Siegel’s biggest box office hit in a career that spanned over three decades with little to no recognition. After that, the two would reunite almost a decade later on the set of Escape from Alcatraz, a sentimental, old-fashioned prison film. However, today I want to specifically look at the first entry in the Dirty Harry franchise, and what made the film gain an iconic status despite its controversial nature and how it fits into the context of 70s New Hollywood.
New Hollywood was, in a way, all about fresh faces. Faces that communicated the willingness to start from scratch. Faces untouched by studios, contracts and reputations. These faces included the likes of Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie, among many others. Following the collapse of the studio system, American cinema was finally on its way to break taboos and throw conventions out the window. Critics and fans like to pinpoint the exact time this happened. Some argue that Bonnie and Clyde was the first movie to do so. Others like to mention Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection.
Personally, I think the definite breaking point is marked by Harry Callahan’s entrance on the crime scene of one of Scorpio’s victims on a poolside roof terrace in San Francisco. Eastwood’s pretty boy features here are hard, lean and mean. His blonde hair rough and uncombed. The dark sun-glasses the only recognizable item protecting him from the world he so passionately hates. He scans the site where the murder took place just hours ago and we immediately notice his cold, impassive attitude. Just another day on the job. Just another victim of a system that specializes in protecting the murderer.
Bruce Surtees’ luscious cinematography makes all the more evident the clash between the spectacularly rich and colorful city of San Francisco used a backdrop for all the violence and terror and our grounded, mean protagonist who is as much of an alien to his environment as the criminal he’s supposed to chase.
What stands out about this seemingly run-off-mill cop thriller is in fact how straightforward and predictable it may seem at first glance. Like a lot of noir films from the 40s and 50s, we watch a handsome vigilante do anything he can in order to stop the evil that is threatening innocent by-standers. Hell, one of the first scenes involves Harry taking matters into his own hands as a robbery is underway across the street from his favorite burger joint. He lazily picks up his Magnum .44 and walks out to meet the gun-toting robbers. He shoots the driver and the guy in the passenger seat. He then proceeds to blow the arm off the man wielding a shotgun. So far, so good. But once he approaches the wounded criminal who is visibly trying to reach for his gun, Harry engages in the by-now famous monologue about the power of his Magnum .44 (”the most powerful handgun in the world”) and the consequences of a close-distance shot in the face. He concludes his monologue by looking straight into the camera and saying, ”You’ve gotta ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya… punk?”
At the time of its release, this was a line that had never been suggested and articulated in such a brutally honest manner. Our movie’s hero, instead of making a regular arrest or having an open conversation with the wounded perp – something a Humphrey Bogart or a Henry Fonda would have typically done – directly threatens the man in front of him and, more importantly, the audience watching the movie.
Siegel stages this confrontation without pulling any punches: one camera focuses on the robber’s arm, slowly reaching for his weapon, and another camera is set on Eastwood’s face as he looks directly at us. Simple, but effective. This initial stand-off acts as a checkpoint for whatever is to come in the movie’s remaining runtime. As an audience, we must nod our heads and admit that this is indeed the kind of movie we signed up for. This new Hollywood violence can be the stuff of nightmares. To make the point even clearer, the initial draft of the movie had the scene end with Harry placing his gun to his own temple and laughing at the perp. Talk about making a statement.
This kind of straightforward, graphic violence was nothing new in other regions of the world and in other dimensions of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) being the prime example. However, nothing had really been done on such a massive commercial scale. Dirty Harry was supposed to be the new hero we could all get behind and cheer for, and yet, both Siegel and Eastwood were determined to keep fans at a distance. This guy was hateful, violent and broken inside. His only purpose was to play dirty on the behalf of the police department and the mayor’s office. A gun-for-hire, so to speak. How could he be the face of a franchise?
The commercial up-to-date stylization of characters and plot points we had already seen before (the strict, by-the-numbers police captain, Harry not getting along with his new partner, a failed attempt at catching the villain, etc) served as a reflection of the needs of modern day audiences. It’s not surprising that Roger Ebert, the famous movie critic, was shocked when confronted with the movie’s direct, vicious and as Ebert himself said it, ”fascist attitude,” but accepted it as an inevitable consequence of the pent up anger boiling inside our protagonist. Because on the one hand, Harry is angry and hateful – most of the time he is indifferent to the daily horror show surrounding him, similarly to Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, he roams around the streets to his beloved city shaken by crime and waits for judgement day to come. On the other hand, he still believes that despite the odds being against him, he can still try and do the right thing.
What we get is not a black or white character, but a grey one. A character riddled with doubts and frustrations but motivated to act on his own terms out of a sense of duty. Dirty Harry ends as a mirror to a society responsible for creating and enabling men like Harry Callahan, men who feel like they’re above the law just because they can toss their badge away from time to time. Men who walk with a gun in their hand like it’s the Old Wild West.
New Hollywood was all about characters like Callahan, just as it was about characters like Scorpio: ruthless villains (in this case, based on the real-life Zodiac killer) troubled by a traumatic past (it is hinted that Scorpio served in the military), bound to their twisted obsessions. Movies were not meant to please, satisfy and calm audiences. Quite the contrary. You had to be shocked. Movies like Dirty Harry refused to entertain for the sake of critical success. Both Siegel and Eastwood had a picture in mind and went about doing it the way they had envisioned it.
The hopeless task that Harry performs as he runs from telephone booth to telephone booth in search of the place where presumably Scorpio left a girl to die of suffocation is a perfect depiction of the unapologetically harsh way New Hollywood went about telling stories. You know the girl is dead. Hell, even Harry knows. But it’s the only thing he can do. Run around in circles in the name of the law. The futility of the violence he carries with him is what is bound to torment him for the rest of his days.
It does not matter whether the badge will still be strapped to his jacket or not. It’s something he simply cannot get rid of.